It’s official. As was the subject of a press conference here in Europe this morning, the LHC has discovered a new particle. Is it the much talked about Higgs boson? Evidently it’s far too early to say with certainty. But whatever it is, it’s a brand new subatomic particle, it’s consistent with a Higgs boson signature, and it’s enough to make CERN physicists quite excited.Whatever it may turn out to be, it’s brand new and never seen before.
This is physics at its most fundamental. The standard model of particle physics is probably our best depiction of how the universe operates at subatomic scales, but our picture is incomplete. A jigsaw puzzle with missing pieces which must still be searched for. One of those pieces is a piece so basic that for a long time it was simply overlooked. Why do objects have mass at all? The existence of the Higgs boson in the Standard Model seeks to address that question. It posits that all the universe is filled with a so-called Higgs Field. Any particles, protons or neutrons for instance, passing through that field will interract with it, and it will interract via Higgs bosons. Any particle which exists in this field will effectively be surrounded by a cluster of these Higgs bosons. The more bosons, the stronger the interraction, and the more massive that particle will be.
But exactly what it is that’s been discovered is still being analysed. Amid a press conference full of journalists asking pointed questions about “the Higgs boson”, scientists were noticeably hesitant to outright say that this is what they’ve discovered. And for good reason too, because science doesn’t work like that, no matter how many people might want to run through the streets naked shouting ‘Eureka’. In all of this, only one thing is certain – a new particle has been discovered with a mass of approximately 125 giga electron volts (125 GeV), with a statistical significance of 4.9 standard deviations (4.9 σ).
Peter Higgs himself, declined to make any comment twice during the conference, simply stating that it would not be appropriate to answer detailed questions at this stage. The other members of the panel too, agree that it’s very difficult to say anything definitively right now and that “Higgs-like” would be a better description of what they’ve found. It’s compatible with a Higgs boson detection, but the “uncertainties are still large”. While definitely being “consistent with a Higgs boson”, interestingly it’s noted that they cannot say if this is the Higgs boson (i.e. the one required by the Standard Model), rather at this stage it may be a Higgs boson. Scientifically speaking, it’s far better to only make statements on what’s known to be true, rather than to make brash announcements which may prove to be incorrect a few months later.
Whatever happens after the months of data analysis which are due to follow is that we’re set to unravel a lot more about the fundamentals of the universe. This discovery is on the very edge of human understanding. It may help to refine our knowledge of the Standard Model of particle physics, or it may hint that this particular Higgs boson is not a part of the standard model – a prospect which ATLAS experiment director Fabiola Gianotti seemed visibly quite excited by.
Rolf Heuer stressed the fact that the most exciting thing here is the fact that they have a discovery of something brand new, perhaps suggesting that we shouldn’t get too caught up in our expectations and simply enjoy the excitement of there being something never before seen in physics in the process of being analysed. Moreover, this could be the very first fundamental scalar particle, and the first gauge boson which actually has any mass. If it does turn out to be a Higgs boson, then this holds the additional thrill that this particle has a relationship to the state of the universe itself, embodying the substance to all other particles which exist.
In the meantime, as the LHC prepares to power down for a couple of years of maintenance, this discovery will certainly stoke the fires of curiosity in thousands of scientists worldwide. The data are still being picked apart too, for things which are completely unknown. Perhaps even more brand new physics is still waiting to be found. It’s an exciting time in physics right now!
(This article is cross-posted from Australian Science.)